You Just Fucked With The Wrong Mexicans, at Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, Leeds (1–16 November 2014) and SEIZE: Quickie, at Assembly House Studios, Leeds (6–13 November 2014)
The best art to come out of Leeds – and now there’s more of it than ever – has always been characterised by a pomposity-pricking irreverence. Starting with its title, the exhibition You Just Fucked With The Wrong Mexicans did not disappoint on that or any other front. The recently opened pristine white gallery space Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun is in a building that previously housed the gallery of the Mexico collective (whose connection with Mexico extended no further than its name), giving this show’s title an added mischievousness. Marking a return to Leeds for its curators, Harlan Whittingham and Benjamin Edwin Slinger, it brought together six young Mexican artists who respond to the culture of contemporary Mexico using graphics, painting, video and ceramics to draw on a heady mix of ideas and imagery from rock music, horror, exploitation movies, video games, the internet, comics, science fiction, urban myth, corrupt politics and religion.
Bayrol Jiménez dominated one wall with his mural, My House and My Community Free of Creatures, its illustration of a mosquito taken from Mexican government commissioned murals to discourage drug use and crime. Funds for these projects are often misappropriated so they end up very poorly executed, an irony inherent in Jiménez’s appropriation of the crudely drawn mosquito.
The other large work, All In All Is All We Are, a wall drawing and sculptural installation of string structures by Txema Novelo, seemed to be a starkly minimalist abstraction. This preconception was startlingly undone by the revelation that the geometry of its intervals and lines was determined by a cryptic encoding of the lyrics of a Nirvana song, the continual looping of the threads a metaphor for the mantra of the words.
Drawing of a much more illustrative kind featured in the work of Carlos Olvera, an artist-designer who works in illustration, clothing and tattooing. All three were combined in his Denims, drawings that could have been enlarged from tattoos, printed onto fabric patches adorning the clothing of the exhibition’s invigilators.
Superimposition is a method that might be seen as a metaphor for the multiplicity and simultaneity that characterizes much contemporary experience, and the two works by Loza, an artist whose primary medium is the internet, used the process in different ways. In Conquerors From A Dying World film posters were literally overlaid to complicate their genre associations, whilst in Pandæmonium, there was an overlaying of 19th and 21st century forms of the spectacular with epic hellscapes by the painter John Martin collaged into a flickering gif image on a video monitor.
Miguel Calderón is the best known and most internationally established of the artists in the show. His music video El Gas explored some of the tropes of Mexican identity, following a domestic gas canister on a whimsical trip through Mexico City that ended with the death of everyone involved. A second video work by Calderón, Kitty Fight, an enigmatic short loop of a playground fight, gave the show one of its most powerful images – a Mexican schoolgirl giving the camera (and thereby the viewer) the finger.
The smallest work in the show was for me easily the most powerful. Coldly erotic and coolly toying with genre distinctions, Salome, by Alejandro García Contreras was like a hybrid of a Meissen porcelain figurine and a miniaturist Jeff Koons. Unambiguously bloody, the naked Salome embraced John the Baptist’s head on a platter atop a column that transformed it into a phallus.
Contreras is a founder member of the collective Neter Proyectos in Mexico City who collaborated with the curators in selecting the artists for the show. The curatorial strategies of Whittingham and Slinger made conceptual sense and visual coherence of an eclectic mix of artists each with a very different aesthetic using a diverse range of media.
The Leeds-based collective Seize accomplished the same thing in a finely balanced display in the tiny but pristine space offered by the gallery within Assembly House Studios, where most of the group’s artists are based. It is a tribute to the collaborative spirit and the curatorial skills of the Seize artists that their exhibition too, jokingly titled Quickie, successfully created visual and conceptual coherence from widely disparate works, from the rococo textiles of Sarah-Joy Ford to the formalism of Will Turner’s sculpture from appropriated objects.
Daisy Forster’s Humbug, Ned Pooler’s Floating Points and Lily Ackroyd-Willoughby’s Leaner, in close proximity to each other, shared not only their space but a knowing wit, a playful use of materials and a teetering balance of formalism and representation in their precociously insistent objecthood. The bright orange ‘tongue’ emerging from a fake marble container in Forster’s piece brought a certain lasciviousness to the proceedings, and looked almost ready to lick up the detritus of broken plaster on the floor that resulted from the invited audience interaction with Eleanor Mason’s work. Mason had carefully stacked a pile of plaster cubes, some fabric-covered, beneath a set of three suspended cubes made of similarly printed fabric stretched over wooden frames, and the stack was destroyed and the plaster fragmented over the course of the opening night. The starkly different materialities but superficial monochrome tonal echoes between Forster’s marble-effect vinyl and Mason’s screen-printed fabric were two of many subtleties of placing in this skillfully curated show. Pooler’s Floating Points brought to mind Rauschenberg in its twisted elegance, but the scrap metal construction subtly shifted its meaning when closer looking revealed it was actually the support for an oil painting.
With its three-dimensional calligraphy, simultaneously rooted to the ground and vivaciously floating above it, Leaner’s airy delicacy was brought down to earth by the abject plastic bag it pinned to the ground. Alongside the more lumpen qualities of Ackroyd-Willoughby’s other two works, Ripe But Firm and nnnhhh, this was ample demonstration of the deftness with which she combines a quickly improvised manipulation of found objects with a carefully crafted use of materials.
Craft of a more traditional kind was deployed in the embroidery, appliqué and felting of Sarah-Joy Ford’s Seeking the Garden Where All Fruit Is Flawless. The most obviously narrative work in the show, it was a tribute to Harnaam Kaur, a bearded woman who escaped bullying and suicidal depression about her body image to find pride and confidence as a convert to Sikhism. Its sensuous materiality and subtle investigation of the complexities of religion, sexuality and gender perceptions and preconceptions made this an intriguing counterpoint to the more formal and conceptual aspects of most of the other work.
Tom McGinn’s Don’t Slow Down Or You’ll Get Stuck (Raster, Raster) had a sophistication that belied its intentionally ramshackle presentation. Fragments of plasterboard and polystyrene on a trestle table provided the fractured ‘screen’ for the projection of an extremely rapid-fire video loop that seamlessly edited together very short clips of cartoons, TV adverts and other pop culture material. In a witty touch a piece of polystyrene packaging also provided the ‘plinth’ for the projector. Deconstruction, both literally and in the postmodern philosophical sense, was an obvious reference point for this work. The same was true in a very different way of Will Turner’s I Was Too Scared To Swim. Mounted on a geometric base of ceramic tiles was the skeleton of a canoe from which Turner had removed the stretched skin. This sculptural object thus became a kind of inverted painting, referencing the stretcher without the canvas but also the absent paint, traces of which remained from Turner’s meticulous sanding of the wooden frame. The conceptual intelligence, cool detachment and painstaking commitment of this work typified the attributes of the Seize show as a whole.
It is ironic that both of these two artist-initiated and self-funded exhibitions closed just as Educating Damien opened at the Tetley, a dull raking over of the long-dead coals of Damien Hirst’s early education in Leeds. In stark contrast, both Quickie and You Just Fucked With The Wrong Mexicans exemplified the adventurous spirit, determination and inventiveness of a substantial and growing community of young artists who are making Leeds a better place to be than it’s been for decades. When the British Art Show 8 opens in Leeds next year it will be in a city where art is once again alive and joyful thanks to the vitality of young artists like these.
© Derek Horton, 2014